Study reveals basking sharks can jump just as high as great whites

20 Sep 2018

A basking shark breaching the water. Image: Youen Jacob

Basking sharks have long had a reputation for being sluggish, but new research shows they are much faster than previously believed.

A collaborative team of marine biologists has discovered that basking sharks can jump as high and fast as their cousins, the famously powerful great white sharks.

Basking sharks are the second-largest fish in the world, some reaching lengths of up to 10 metres. Prior to this study, they were perceived as slow and languid, scouring the seas at leisure in search of plankton.

The new research published in Biology Letters used video analysis of both great white and basking sharks, estimating their vertical swimming speeds at the moment they left the water. Scientists also attached a data recording device to one large basking shark to measure its speed and movement, and also to store video footage.

Basking sharks show rapid swim speeds

At one point, in just over nine seconds with 10 beats of its tail, the basking shark accelerated from a depth of 28 metres to the surface and broke through the water at nearly 90 degrees. The shark cleared the water for one second and its impressive leap peaked at 1.3 metres above the water’s surface.

To achieve this feat, the basking shark demonstrated a six-fold increase in tail beat frequency and reached a top speed of approximately 5.1 metres per second. This is more than twice as fast as the average Olympic men’s 5o-metre swim competitor.

The videos from boats and land of two species of shark showed similar speeds of breaching in others. The basking shark footage was captured in 2015 at Malin Head, Ireland, and the great white sharks were filmed in South Africa, where seal-shaped decoys induced feeding attempts.

A great white shark breaching the water

A great white shark breaching the water. Image: Morne Hardenberg

A surprising marine discovery

Assistant professor in zoology at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Dr Nick Payne, was a co-author of the journal article. He said: “The impressive turn of speed that we found basking sharks exhibit shows how much we are yet to learn about marine animals – even the largest, most conspicuous species have surprises in store, if we’re willing to look.”

Dr Jonathan Houghton, senior lecturer in marine biology at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “This finding does not mean that basking sharks are secretly fierce predators tearing round at high speed; they are still gentle giants munching away happily on zooplankton.

“It simply shows there is far more to these sharks than the huge swimming sieves we are so familiar with. It’s a bit like discovering cows are as fast as wolves (when you’re not looking).”

The collaborative research team comprised biologists from Queen’s University Belfast, University of Roehampton, TCD, University of Cape Town, the Irish Basking Shark Study Group and the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects